A Film with Character
Whaddaya know? Little Quentin Tarantino is growing up.
Don’t get me wrong — I’ve mostly liked Tarantino’s film work. Reservoir Dogs broke new ground, depicting new heights of movie violence, practically creating a new genre. Pulp Fiction was subversive and brilliant. But Jackie Brown marks Tarantino’s coming of age as a mature filmmaker. (Of course, one must consider the source material. A movie based on an Elmore Leonard novel — Rum Punch, in this case — would probably never be something to sneeze at. Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, also via Leonard, is one of my favorite movies of recent years.)
The central character here is, natch, Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), an aging flight attendant for a two-bit Mexican airline and a small-time smuggler on the side. When she’s caught bringing in tons of cash and a little coke for gun dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), the cops offer to let her set up Robbie — the big cheese they’re really after — in exchange for immunity for herself. But with the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), she plans to pull one over on the cops as well as on Ordell, and hopes to walk away with half a million dollars of Ordell’s without the cops or Ordell ever realizing what she’s done.
Jackie and Max are the film’s central characters, and Tarantino (who wrote the screenplay as well as directed) handles them in a surprisingly tender and melancholy way. Both Jackie, 44 years old, and Max, 56, are facing their twilight years never having accomplished much of anything, and that regret — along with an undercurrent of incipient romance — brings them together in a kind of sad, sweet bond. One scene in particular sees them discussing life disappointments over a cup of coffee in Jackie’s small, depressing apartment — the scene is touching without ever suggesting that these are people to be pitied. Grier and Forster give Jackie and Max a resolve that counters their disappointment.
Ordell’s friends, losers all, Tarantino never treats with less than an appreciation of their intrinsic humanness. Melanie (Bridget Fonda) — one of Ordell’s many girlfriends, the “blond surfer girl” — and Louis (Robert DeNiro), who served time with Ordell and now seems to just hang around looking for something to do, both suffer rather unfairly in the end, making them more sympathetic characters than they probably deserve to be.
Even the wild-goose-chase plot, as the cops, Jackie and Max, Melanie and Louis, and Ordell scramble after the shopping bag full of Ordell’s money, seems to unfold at a more sedate pace than we’ve come to expect from a Tarantino film. At more than 2 1/2 hours, Jackie Brown could probably have been shorter and entertained nearly as much, but Tarantino lets his characters develop at their leisure.
And rightly so. Bravo for a film that puts characters on an even standing with plot — there aren’t enough of them.